Author Charles Denyer says the events of 9/11 led him to chronicle the history of the home of the vice president of the United States.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence, wife Karen, Dr. Jill Biden and Vice President Joe Biden greet reporters following lunch at the residence in late 2016.
It’s not easy getting noticed when you’re second. That’s especially true for our nation’s vice presidents who have called the Naval Observatory home since the Queen Anne-styled mansion became designated as their official residence in 1975. Until Charles Denyer came along, not much had been written on it. I caught up with the author of Number One Observatory Circle: The Home of the Vice President of the United States to nd out more about Washington’s second most powerful house.
What got you interested in the vice presidential residence?
Charles Denyer: I was just outside the Pentagon on the morning of 9/11. After the plane hit, I tried to drive my car back into the District, but a federal agent stopped me by the Key Bridge and said I had to walk. I had only been in the District 14 days—I was attending Johns Hopkins on Massachusetts Avenue—and I wound up walking by the grounds of the Naval Observatory. It was just chaos—black Suburbans everywhere, lots going on. Fall was just settling in so I could see the home quite clearly and I remember asking someone, “Who lives there?”
So you didn’t know that it was the residence of the vice president?
Denyer: No. And it’s not just me—when I ask people where the home of the vice president is I get answers like, “I don’t know,” “the Blair House” or “the basement of the White House.”
Designer Frank Randolph worked closely with Mrs. Cheney while decorating the residence.
What surprised you most while you did research and learned about the residence?
Denyer: It’s an old home, built in 1893, so by the time it became the official residence of the vice president in 1975, it was basically dilapidated. When Mondale came in 1977 the tiles on the roof were falling off and had to be replaced. People from the Cheney years told me they would be having a party and the heat would die out or the air conditioning would stop. That was pretty surprising.
I’m sure the condition of the home didn’t go over well with the vice presidents.
Denyer: Happy, the wife of the second vice president to live there, Nelson Rockefeller— although she would never come out and say it—was basically appalled at the home and never lived there. They had a home at 2500 Foxhall Road.
Any super secret stuff?
Denyer: Well, there is an underground bunker with big iron doors that neighbors complained a lot about during construction. It was secret until Biden joked about it at the Gridiron dinner.
President-elect George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush celebrate their 1988 election victory outside the residence.
Does the entire property belong to the vice president?
Denyer: The Naval Observatory is 72 acres. Twelve acres are dedicated to the vice president’s home. Out of those 12, the home sits on four acres. at’s not to say they can’t use the other 60 acres—Mondale and Gore were known to use the telescopes.
Who owned the house before the vice presidents moved in?
Denyer: The navy did and they lobbied hard against making it the home of the vice president, arguing that it was a bad home and structurally unsound.
Any entertaining tales?
Denyer: Walter Mondale’s son Teddy took a four-by-four and drove around the Naval Observatory and tore up the grounds. On another occasion, the Secret Service asked Mondale if his daughter Eleanor, who liked to ride her horse on the grounds, could not do so in such skimpy clothes.
Where did vice presidents have their homes before 1977?
Denyer: They lived in their own homes, but the costs and the operational headaches become too much. Plus, you had the second-in-command of the most powerful country in the world and they didn’t have a place to formally socialize or hold functions. The situation was becoming a source of embarrassment.
What was it like getting people to interview for the book?
Denyer: It started with Mondale. I got that first interview and he agreed to forward the book. That was an important rst one. Then I moved onto Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle. I found the White House photographers to be very helpful as well. But I had a lot of push back and had to jump through a lot of hoops. The whole process took 16 years.
Dick Cheney poses with his Labrador retriever, Jackson, in 2001.
What stuck out the most from conducting the interviews?
Denyer: Trying to write a book on politics and not be political is a hard thing. A lot of competing interests tried to take control of the narrative and rewrite history.
Sounds like some good old-fashioned Washington politics.
Denyer: When one administration leaves and another comes in, there can be friction. There was tension when the Gores came over to see the home. That was dicult for the Quayles just like it was dicult for the Gores to host the Cheneys. In 2008, the war of words between Biden and Cheney got ugly, but political smiles had to be in place when the Bidens toured the home.
How much renovation are the vice presidents allowed to do?
Denyer: They get a congressional budget, but there is also a Vice President’s Residence Foundation started by the Quayles. Barbara Bush raised a lot for that. The Gores and the Quayles had a lot of kids so they wanted to blow out some walls and make space. That wasn’t covered by the congressional budget. A lot of people don’t know that.
What’s the most interesting thing someone has added to the house?
Denyer: Dan Quayle put in a pool and a putting green. Biden is famous for saying “Dan Quayle is my favorite vice president because he put that pool in for me.”
I guess we can nd some bipartisan agreement in Washington after all.
Photography by: PHOTOS BY DENNIS BLACK (BUSH) AND DURSTON SAYLOR FOR ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST (HOME)